Syrian regime backs off from protesters, in a shift

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2011 

BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of Syrian protesters poured into the streets of Damascus and cities outside the capital Friday for anti-government demonstrations that remained mostly peaceful, a stark change from the high death tolls of earlier rallies where authorities used live ammunition.

Friday's crowds were the largest since the uprising began a month ago and were proof that Syria's nascent pro-democracy movement was gaining momentum, several witnesses and activists said. Security forces used tear gas and batons against protesters in some cities, according to news agencies, but no deaths were reported.

"The number of protesters is growing," said Razan Zeitounah, an activist in Damascus. "There is a message from the people that when you don't respond to our demands and threaten us with violence, we are going to come out in larger numbers."

An estimated 200 people have died in the month-old uprising, which poses the greatest challenge yet to the repressive regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime foe of the West and close partner of Iran. The Obama administration is nervously monitoring the situation in Syria, which shares borders with five strategic U.S. partners: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

But Friday's protests were peaceful compared with others, though witnesses said authorities still attacked and detained dozens of participants. State forces also rounded up some 400 people at demonstrations on Wednesday.

There were scattered reports that authorities used live ammunition Friday, but none could be verified independently, and there was no word of protesters wounded by gunfire.

Opposition members said they could only speculate as to why Assad's forces had allowed Friday's protests to unfold after brutally cracking down on previous ones.

"I think it was a strategy of the government," said Yassin al Hajj Saleh, a prominent opposition journalist who spent 16 years in the regime's prisons. "It would be very dangerous and could cause a scandal in the country."

Protests began about a month ago in the southern village of Daraa. Until this week, they were largely confined to other outlying towns such as Douma and Baniyas.

Demonstrations erupted following noon prayers on Friday at the Shamsi Mosque in Damascus and the Omar Ibn Al Khattab mosque in Aleppo, according to videos posted on the Internet.

Another video showed protests in Hama, the site of a massacre in 1982, when the government leveled the entire village with bombs. Other videos have appeared from the towns of Daraa, Arbeen, Idlib and Homs. Authenticating the source of videos is nearly impossible because Syrians who post the footage online remain anonymous for fear of government retaliation.

The regime has attempted to appease some groups in the country with promises of reform. It offered citizenship to the estimated 300,000 Kurds in Syria, but has yet to act.

On Thursday, the government announced a cabinet reshuffle, with 14 out of 31 ministers retaining their posts and another three moving to different positions. The new ministers are all loyal to the regime, said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian journalist in Dubai and former member of Syria's ruling Baath party. He noted that they're bound by both blood ties and business partnerships.

"We cannot call it a new government," he said. "I wanted to find someone who had something positive to say about it, but I could not find anyone."

A document circulating among Syrian activists purports to reveal a detailed plan by the government to stifle any protest movement and learn from the mistakes of Tunisia and Egypt, whose leaders fell quickly once demonstrations began.

The document, obtained Friday by McClatchy, couldn't be independently verified. Syrian activists consider it genuine. The crumpled, stained, three-page document, with stamps dating to March 23, explains a strategy in three areas: security, information and political/economic action.

It details a mass campaign to control the flow of information to the news media. It orders strict punishment for those who "convey any news that does not serve the country" or smears the highest symbol of the country, the president, "because ignoring such violations will further empower the enemies to cross other lines."

It calls for internal spies to infiltrate social networks by posing as anti-regime figures with pseudonyms, and for security agents to speak on television to insert contradictory gaps in the narrative. Areas of protest should be flooded with criminals to create chaos and with plain-clothes security agents with weapons in an attempt coax protesters to take up arms, the document states.

Abdel Nour said "all authoritarian regimes have an agenda," so it isn't far-fetched to believe the government is carrying out the plans outlined in the leaked document. He said the document's veracity should be confirmed with laboratory testing and, if found to be genuine, "the authors of it should be taken to court."

Regardless of whether it's authentic, the government has largely followed its script, including the message in a speech Assad made weeks ago blaming foreign elements for fomenting unrest. Syrian intelligence already closely monitors cellular networks, landline phones and the Internet.

The document also gives orders for the army not to use live ammunition "as that will be restricted for trained security agents along with the black (battalions) and the secret (plain-clothes) battalions." Snipers should remain concealed to keep the source of fire hidden, the authors caution.

Syrians "don't need to see this document to be afraid," said Zeitounah, the activist in Damascus. "They live this every day."

(Bossone is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam in Cairo contributed to this story.)

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